‘Chinese Characters’ gives insight into a society in flux

Chinese Characters:
Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land

Edited by Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Univ. of California Press: 244 pp., $24.95

In a recent poll, more than 26% of the American public named China as the nation that represents the greatest danger to the U.S. — far ahead of any other country. (Iran was second with 16%, followed by North Korea with 13%.)

Yet when the Pew Global Attitudes Project also asked Americans to describe China’s people, U.S. respondents perceived the Chinese positively and said they embody many traits we strongly associate with “Americanness” — such as being hardworking, competitive, patriotic and creative. The Americans even gave the Chinese credit for being significantly less rude, violent, selfish and arrogant than we Yankees.

It’s a schism driven partly by what’s on our bookshelves. For every unnerving title like Martin Jacques’ “When China Rules the World” or Peter Navarro and Greg Autry’s histrionic “Death by China,” there is a more sympathetic, personal tale from the grass roots from writers such as Peter Hessler (“River Town”) and Leslie T. Chang (“Factory Girls”).


“Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land” is the latest entrant in the latter genre. A collection of essays by 15 authors (including Hessler and Chang) about a range of people — including a guitar teacher, a Taoist mystic, a hard-drinking young Tibetan and a painter who churns out cheap oil colors for Western customers — the book tries to capture some human stories from the ground up.

Some entries are much more compelling than others; fortunately, the chapters stand on their own and there’s no need to read from front to back.

Among the most interesting and accessible are Michelle Damon Loyalka’s lively, gritty depiction of a migrant worker toiling in a recycling scrap yard, and Indian journalist Ananth Krishnan’s intimate tracing of a young Uighur student’s arduous cultural and linguistic journey from his village in the western wilds of Xinjiang to university 2,000 miles away in Beijing. It’s unfortunate that the book doesn’t include photographs of these, or any, of its colorful subjects or their environs.

If some of the chapters feel familiar to ardent readers of China stories, it’s because they’ve been adapted from already published works. Evan Osnos’ contribution on a young graduate student studying Western philosophy who made a nationalist video that went viral, while fascinating, is based on a 2008 New Yorker story. Similarly, Christina Larson’s well-crafted tale of environmental scientist challenging the government’s massive south-to-north water diversion project originated as a 2008 Washington Monthly piece. Chang and Hessler’s chapters date from 2008 and 2009, respectively.

An afterword by editor Angilee Shah acknowledges that “by the time this book reaches readers, we know, many things about the people in it will have changed” and provides a few small details about what’s happened to the subjects in the intervening years. As the title of the book itself notes, China and the lives of its people change fast, so 4-year-old material is particularly conspicuous.

The book goes out of its way to include characters whose lives stretch back to the era before Mao and those who endured the Cultural Revolution. These chapters serve as a useful reminder of just how new the “New China” is — the senior citizens we might encounter now in Beijing’s hutongs sprang from an era of child brides, and some of the esteemed professors of today were sent down to the countryside by the Red Guards in the 1960s. But the narrative thread of these chapters often gets watered down as the writers feel compelled to add dry paragraphs of general history that seem lifted from textbooks.

The editors of “Chinese Characters” wisely harbor no illusions that this collection of essays could, or should, even begin to represent China’s 1.3 billion people. After all, among the 15 portraits, none focuses on a government bureaucrat or Communist Party functionary. The female stories told here feel slight compared with those of the men. And the stories are captured almost entirely by Western, not Chinese, eyes.

But the compilers have smartly focused on curating a selection of stories that illustrates how China is a place where, as editor Jeffrey Wasserstrom puts it, “lives can suddenly be turned inside out as opportunities are seized or squandered, and change is by turns liberating and unsettling.”

In reading these stories of how individuals make their way in this topsy-turvy, fast-paced society, enduring hardship, creating new businesses, challenging authority, struggling to maintain their identities and trying to create better lives for their children, it’s impossible not to feel impressed — and connected.

“Chinese Characters” sheds light on the Chinese character. And as the Americans polled in the Pew study suggested, that character is not so very different from our own.